All right then? Let's see what we've got... Ron, Harry, Hermione, flying car, giant spider, big snake, old friends, old enemies, new teachers, new spells, strange little creatures, excellent evil, heroic goodness, and just a tiny, tiny twist of romance. Yes... I do believe we've got another winner here. But beware... it's darker, scarier, with a couple really good GOTCHAs, oh and don't drink anything two hours beforehand or during, since the movie runs just under 2 ¾ hours, and you won't want to miss a minute of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Unlike the first film (which, I'll admit, I saw before I read any of the books), this film assumes that you've seen the first one, read the books, or both, and launches right into the action. Harry's back "home" with the Dursley's, who we actually end up seeing very little of. After a visit from Dobby the House Elf, who causes much trouble for our young hero, Harry is away quickly enough, and reunited with Ron and his family, before heading to Diagon Alley where the two friends reunite with their third, Hermione, before heading off to Hogwarts. Things don't go quite as planned, however, and the hurdles start appearing (almost as if by magic, you might say ;) thick and furious, causing almost two hours of non-stop movement, both on-screen and in the story, until the end comes with terrifying speed and... just like that, it's over.
The young actors have grown a bit, the older actors are still great, and the new cast members fit in perfectly. Unfortunately, especially due to the longer original story, the inclusion of several more supporting players, and just oodles of special effects, the entire story feels a bit squashed, which at only a bit under three hours, makes one wonder if they couldn't have sacrificed a bit of the effects for more of the characters, since it is the characters audiences and readers fell in love with.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint all reprise their rolls as Harry, Hermione and Ron, respectively. All are a little older, the lads with somewhat deeper voices, and all have improved noticeably, performance-wise. Radcliffe has improved, settled into his role as the undervalued and underestimated Harry, and Grint especially seems much more at ease living in the body of his red-headed counterpart, Ron. But the most improvement seems to be in Watson's role as Hermione. In Sorcerer's Stone, she was a bit shrill, a bit over-the-top at times, but in Chamber, she has truly become Hermione, the mannerisms, the maturity, still the know-it-all, but much more internal about it.
Great performances from the late (and sorely missed) Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore (side note... it turns out that Albus is latin for "White", at least according to CNN, so it's appropriate that said character is the mentor for the heroes against the forces of darkness), Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall, David Bradley as Groundskeeper Argus Filch, Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. All the old faces, back in their appropriate roles, give a great sense of continuity that I fear we won't see again, not even with the third film, due to Harris' untimely death.
Likewise, wonderful performances from the newcomers. Kenneth Branagh is 100% perfect as Gilderoy Lockhart, resident blowhard wizard. Toby Jones provides the voice for Dobby the House Elf, which is almost exactly as I imagined he would sound. Miriam Margoyles, again, is perfectly cast and acted as Professor Sprout, the instructor in charge of Herbology. But there are two stand-out performances amongst the newcomers that bear special attention.
First is Shirley Henderson, who gives visage and voice to Moaning Myrtle, the spectre of the girls washroom. In the books, her character reads as much more whiny, so I was delighted to see that the filmmakers decided to take a slightly different direction with the character, and Henderson makes this character something to enjoy instead of something to dread.
But my favorite of the new additions, mostly because I really like villains (and, let's face it, he has cool hair), is Jason Isaacs (seen on the right) as Lucius Malfoy, the father of Harry's nemesis Draco. Isaacs just drips subtle, intelligent, arrogant malice, from the moment he enters into the bookstore to find Draco and Harry trading barbs, to the moment he departs his last scene (on his backside, I might add). In ever scene, he is a walking embodiment of a dangerous undercurrent, as if were he to let down his control for even a split-second, he might very well destroy everyone and everything. Such incredible ferocity of anger and hatred, all tightly bundled into scathing stares and ominous presence, even when he is silent, makes for a wonderful villain. Here's hoping Isaacs signs on for the third film and any others that might come after.
Were the movie to find its merits entirely based on the strength of its cast, I would have to invent a new letter grade, something better than an A+, for it. The cast, and their performances, are first rate. But unfortunately, the filmmakers tried to pack a little too much into the time they had, and even at a running time of 161 minutes, there is too much.
The film moves too quickly, giving audiences no time whatsoever to let down and reflect on what they've seen, thus the entire thing passes at somewhat of a blur. Even in the slower scenes, there is so much visually going on that the viewer is almost dazzled into a sublime sense of wonder, letting the movie wash over them with little thought as to why what they're seeing on-screen is happening, what the possibilities are, or what the outcomes may be. In any good mystery, which this film could have been, there must be time for the audience to ponder what is happening, to formulate their own theories and opinions, and to begin to watch for clues. This film moves along at such a breakneck pace that there is no time for anything but breath-gasping, hand-gripping, and a few chuckles here and there before it hurdles ever onward.
Overall, I give this film an A-. It's definitely worth seeing, but at 161 minutes, it's actually long enough that the filmmakers should have resurrected an old, time-honored tradition, and put an intermission, complete with John Williams' Harry Potter Intermezzo Symphonique, about an hour and a half into the picture. Even that would have helped the pacing, and the audience, in many ways.